Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic joined a team of human rights lawyers in filing two lawsuits in U.S. federal district courts, charging former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and former Bolivian Minister of Defense Carlos Sánchez Berzaín for their roles in the killing of civilians during popular protests against the Bolivian government in September and October 2003.

Thomas Becker ’08 spent time in Bolivia before coming to law school working with human rights groups.  In September 2006, Becker’s human rights group and the Clinic began exploring the possibility of bringing a suit in the United States against the two defendants.

“The lawsuits are the culmination of years of work by Bolivian human rights groups to hold these two defendants accountable for their actions in 2003,” said Becker.

The suits, which seek compensatory and punitive damages, charge Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín with extrajudicial killings and crimes against humanity for their roles in the massacre of unarmed civilians, including children.  Both suits charge that in September and October 2003, Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín ordered Bolivian security forces to use deadly force, including the use of high-powered rifles and machine guns, to suppress popular civilian protests against government policies. 

During those two months, forces under the defendants’ leadership killed 67 men, women, and children and injured more than 400 – almost all from indigenous Aymara communities – according to the lawsuits. 

On October 17, 2003, both Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín fled to the United States.  Sánchez de Lozada now lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland; Sánchez Berzaín now resides in Miami, Florida.  Two separate cases were filed – one in U.S. federal court in the District of Maryland against Sánchez de Lozada and the other in the Southern District of Florida against Sánchez Berzaín – with the same plaintiffs and charges of human rights violations in each.

Harvard Law School Clinical Professor of Law and Human Rights Program Executive Director James Cavallaro and Clinical Director Tyler Giannini have led clinical students on several fact-finding missions to Bolivia, during which students and instructors conducted interviews with witnesses, identified plaintiffs, and met with local lawyers and human rights advocates.  

“The work of HLS clinical students on this case cannot be understated, with a dozen students providing assistance over the past twelve months,” said Cavallaro.

“The significance of their work on what may prove to be the most high profile civil suit against a former head of state residing in the U.S. since Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos, is a testament to the dedication of the student human rights community here at HLS,” added Giannini. 

The suit was filed by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, attorneys with the firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, leading ATS attorney Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun, DeSimone, Seplow, Harris and Hoffman, as well as David Rudovsky and Judith Chomsky.

Harvard Law students and recent graduates participating on the case include Becker, as well as Yukyan Lam ’07, Jacob Kopas ’07, Nathan Ela ’07, Britton Schwartz ’07, Stephanie Brewer ’07, Meghan Morris ’08, Karla Quintana-Osuna LL.M. ’08, Andrew McIntyre LL.M. ’08, Katherine Currie ’09, Katherine Glenn ’09, and Abigail Moy ’09.

To view a Washington Post article covering these lawsuits, click here.